And here we are. The end. Weird to think it's only been three months, right? And I know what you must be thinking- how can there possibly be another chapter? Well, I wanted to wrap everything up, and a couple of people requested it. I'm not exactly overjoyed with how it turned out, but I wanted something to finish it off. At the end I'll explain how the companion pieces will tie in. Until then, happy reading.
He's beginning to think that this was an awful idea.
His gut is churning, his palms are sweaty, and are those palpitations? Oh god, he's probably going to have a heart attack before he ever arrives. Well, won't that just be fantastic? Dead before he ever arrives...
"Are you feeling okay, Mr Stark?" asks the cab driver. Tony nods back mutely. No, he is not. He is feeling many things- including apprehensive, excited and more than a little hungover- but okay was most certainly not one of them.
"Just a bit carsick," he manages to force out, and the driver nods understandingly.
"Well, don't worry, sir- we're only about five minutes away."
He hasn't slept in two days, not since he'd gotten the news. He'd been in a bar when his phone first rang, and he'd ignored it- no way was he going to listen to Rhodey whine about whatever when sitting across from him was this year's Miss America. It was only the way home that he checked the voicemail.
"Hello, Mr Stark, this is Josephine Brooks, calling on behalf of your cousin Pepper Potts. There was an awful fire last night, and, well... Mr and Mrs Potts were killed. Pepper managed to get out with only minor burns, but she's in desperate need of some emotional support, and you're her only remaining family. I'd appreciate if you could call me back; okay, bye!"
Without a second thought, he'd spun his car around- he needed to get to the airport.
But now, with the plane landed and the car very nearly there, he's wondering if this wasn't a very bad idea. It's been a decade since he last saw her beam, since he last heard her voice. She's eighteen, having graduated from highschool only a month ago. She'll have changed; things will have changed. For a second he's tempted to tell the driver to turn around, to call the whole thing off.
But he thinks of fishing and swimming and s'mores, of wide eyes earnestly explaining why he can't swear, of card games and cut lips and a clearing full of broken children. Pepper fixing Bruce up, Pepper punching Justin Hammer, Pepper explaining why she wants to be like him. He's thought of these things a thousand times, a million times, staring at the roof of his ceiling after another day alone, and he knows why he can't just leave her when she needs him most.
The car passes under the footbridge and through the main part of town, past the dollar store and the candy shop and the mini-market, the diner with the best breakfast in the state and the alleyway where they first found Steve. Past the turnoff to the footpath that leads through the woods, and into the suburbs. He can count down the houses now: five left, four left, three left, two left, a blackened mess where a house used to be, and stupid Tony, how would she live in a house that burned down?
He gets out the car, stomach clenching. The shack looks awful- most of it is cinders on the floor, but there are still a few beams standing, charred and unearthly. The houses on either side are miraculously untouched, and now, as he looks, the door of the house on the left opens.
"Tony?" asks a voice.
She is stood in the doorway, clutching the handle shakily, her massive eyes red rimmed from crying. Her ginger hair falls down to her waist in a long wave, her skin as freckly as it ever was, and she looks as though she's seen a ghost.
"Pepper?" he whispers, and his cousin sprints out the house, straight into his arms, only to break down in tears.
"Tony," she hiccups, pressing her face to his shoulder. "Oh my god, Tony, it's you. You're really here! You're... oh my god. How did you know? No, nevermind. I'm sorry, I just, I just..."
"Shh, shh," he soothes, stroking her hair and rocking her gently like he used to do when they were little. "I gotcha. I gotcha. It's okay, Pepper, I gotcha."
It's completely surreal. Subvert letters smuggled in and out of his houses are nothing compared to standing here with her, talking to her, just being with her. The air smells like smoke, but under that it smells the same as it always did, heady with summer and barbecue, forest and car fumes. Tony pays the taxi driver and sends him away before taking Pepper gently by the arm and leading her to the diner.
"The funeral is next week," she tells him miserably. "I'm staying with my neighbour until then, but after that... after that I don't know. I just... I've got no money, and the house is gone, and," she looks at him, eyes huge, "I just want to get away from here, There's nothing here for me, and I... I need to get away from here." He gives her a sad smile.
"I can do that. I don't know if you know, but I've just finished a new building, up in New York. My stuff is being moved in as we speak, and once the funeral is over we're going to go up together and you're going to live with me, as long as you need. Okay?" She nods and her face crumples, like she's forcing back tears. "Until then, no dwelling on what's happened- we're going to keep ourselves busy."
"We're going to track down our old friends."
They begin first thing the next morning. Tony barely knows anything of what happened in the decade he was gone, and it turns out that Pepper doesn't know a lot either. After Tony and Thorki left, it was one event after another, until they were split and sent every which way, unable to get in touch. Tragedy appears to have dogged every one of them, appearing at every turn, but by evening they have found Steve, one town over and living in a decrepit flat off his army handout. His eyes are haunted and he flinches at loud noises. The flat is tiny and smells of mildew, in the rougher part of town, sparsely furnished with nothing personal. Tony ignores the rational part of his brain screaming at him to stop, because what does it matter if they argued a lot as kids and if they hadn't seen each other in years? Steve is a friend, and he clearly needs help, so the offer to live in Stark Tower is extended to him too.
Bruce is with an aunt in a house in the middle of nowhere, about forty minutes away from the backwater town. He is twenty now, working the graveyard shift at a newsagents, and when they arrive his aunt is screaming at him to just get out, to get out of her house and get out of life, because you were never any use to anyone Bruce Banner. He's clutching a suitcase and blinking back tears and she shoves him down the stairs of the porch. They pick him up and take him to the diner, and he explains how he was saving for college, but now he'll have to use that money to find somewhere to stay, he supposes, because he's got no family left. Tony stops him right there- he can live at Stark Tower, and Tony will fund his college, because if his friend is half as smart as he remembers him being then there is now way he will waste his life polishing floors and washing dishes.
It takes them four days to track down Clintasha. They are on the other side of the state, living with their adoptive father, who is-
"Wait," says Tony, eyes bulging. "Coulson adopted you?! Coulson? Agent Coulson?" The man in the suit, who was slightly older and slightly balder than before, sighed.
"I'm still not an agent Tony, and I still don't have a badge." Tony flushes, because he remembers just how blatantly he and Pepper had lied to this man. Coulson, however, just smirks and gives him a knowing look.
They are both twenty, and looking to move out. They want somewhere in the big city, because they've got big plans for their lives. Plans that are actually pretty clever, business-wise, and Tony offers them a place at Stark Towers, as well as funding, because, hey- why not?
And then they day before the funeral, Pepper picks up the newspaper, only to drop it with a shriek and yell for Tony. The headline reads Anarchy in Asgard, with a subheading reading A millennia old monarchy collapses in just a few short days. They scan through, reading about the scandal at the coronation and the truth of Loki 'Odinson's' parentage. Bruce produces an old slip of paper, crumpled from being folded and unfolded so many times, with a phone number printed on it.
"The Odinson's private number," he explains, and Tony gives them a call with an offer of refuge at Stark Towers because by this point, there's really no sense in doing anything else.
The day after the funeral they board the Stark private jet, excited yet nervous for their new life together. Pepper's eyes are red, with deep bags underneath- she's clearly been crying all night. All of Bruce's possessions fit a single, tiny suitcase, and all of Steve's fit into an even tinier rucksack. Clint and Tasha have a habit of sitting back to back whenever possible, and are tense when the other is not around. Tony is anxious and trying to hide it when his phone goes off.
Plane about to leave. Will arrive about half an hour after you. Thor says greetings. L
Before he can text back, it buzzes again.
Small possibility that Thor will not survive to the end of this flight. Will that be a problem for you? L
And then it buzzes a third time, with a text from a different number.
GREETINGS FRIEND TONY! DO NOT LISTEN TO WHAT LOKI SAYS! IT IS ALL LIES, I PROMISE YOU!
He shakes his head and puts the phone away with a smile, preparing for take off. Bad idea or not, one thing is for sure- his life is about to get a lot more interesting.
Five years later
"You two! Get out of here and go get changed, NOW!" He and Bruce both freeze, looking at each other guiltily. They don't know which ginger woman is on the other side of that door- Pepper and Tasha planned the event together- but they know better than to risk incurring her wrath.
They are up in the lab, planning their biggest project yet, dubbed the 'Iron Man Suit' by Clint. It will actually be made from a titanium/gold alloy, but that didn't deter the Olympic archer, and now the name has stuck. However, it will have to wait, because the charity event starts in an hour, and they're covered in ink and grease, in ratty old jeans and even rattier shirts.
Once showered and changed, they head downstairs to meet the others. Guests will be arriving soon, and everything is perfect. He has to hand it to them- they are exceptional planners, most likely to do with Pepper being so ridiculously organised. He's offered before to hire her as his assistant, but she laughed in his face, effectively shooting down that idea.
"Greetings, friends!" booms Thor as he appears, closely followed by Loki. "Lady Pepper, I am sorry for having asked this before, but I must be sure- is the Lady Jane going to be here tonight?" They all smirk- Thor has been infatuated with the astrophysicist for months, and tonight is the night- or so he has told them- that he will ask her out for coffee.
"Yes, she is," says Pepper kindly, before turning to Loki with a wink. "Darcy will be here too, you know?" The pale ex-prince scowls and turns away to hide his blush. Clint sidles up to Tasha and hugs her from behind.
"I'm going to be dancing with the most beautiful woman in the room tonight," he murmurs. Tasha rolls her eyes and gives him a quick kiss while Tony makes gagging noises.
"You know, Tony," says Steve, whose hand is intertwined with Pepper's, "I wouldn't be so quick to judge. If all goes well for Loki and Thor tonight, you'll be the last single person in the group!"
"And what am I?" protests Bruce. "Sliced salami?"
"Guess you two will just have to hook up," smirks Tasha, and they all laugh. As the conversation moves on, Tony catches Bruce's eye. They haven't told them yet- Tony's known he's bisexual since he was fifteen and drunkenly kissed a guy out back of one of his father's parties, but it was a bit of an identity crisis for Bruce, and he's still getting used to the idea. They're going to do it soon, though, they've decided. Soon, but not tonight. Tonight is one of the Avengers'- as the public has, rather strangely, taken to calling them- social gatherings, famous throughout the country for the good company, the genial atmosphere, and the fact that as well as truffles and caviar, there is always a plate of peanut butter sandwiches being served as well.
"Sir," announces Jarvis, who Tony finally finished last year; "Phil Coulson has arrived, and is waiting in the entrance." Pepper beams brightly.
"Time to go greet the guests!" They head down, Clintasha taking the lead- they are eager to see their adopted father again.
The halls of Stark Tower are lined with various photos and paintings, and as they head down they pass Tony's favourite one. No one else has noticed it- it's not a commonly used hall, off to the side, and on the floor that's only ever opened up for social functions- and he doubts they will, but he doesn't mind
It's a photo- the angle is slightly wonky, like the camera was badly balanced, and it has discoloured in the years since it was taken. There is a rip down the middle from where an irate father tore it in two that has been stuck back together with sellotape, and it has a hundred creases from where it was folded a hundred times. It is the photo from the last day with them all together, smiling and laughing and goofing around with each other. As far as Tony is concerned, it is the most valuable item in Stark Tower.
The companion pieces will cover what happened in the decade between last chapter and this- it will fill in all the holes and explain what everyone was up to. I don't know when I'll get them up- hopefully by Christmas, but I'm staring down the barrel of a pretty busy few weeks so I can't promise anything. In the meantime, I'd like to say thank you to everyone for being such lovely readers and reviewers! You're all fantastic, and without you I wouldn't have bothered to write this story at all!